Tomatoes have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Given adequate moisture, they thrive quite well in the desert west. Not that I was a huge fan of them as a child. Over time, I became enamored with them as my family became proficient in raising cherry tomatoes. Sweet, with a touch of salt, they won me over.
Tomatoes are one of the most widely cultivated vegetable crops. They are found worldwide and are used in an astounding array of recipes. In tropical and sub-tropical areas, they grow as a perennial. During visits to central Mexico, I have seen very large tomato vines that obviously had grown for multiple seasons. The main stalk on those plants was impressive!
Around here, we grow our prolific friends as annuals. When the killing frosts arrive, that’s it. Into the compost pile they go!
Those of you that have been growing tomatoes for a while know that they come in two main categories; determinate and indeterminate. I love it when something’s name actually describes what it is! Determinate tomatoes have characteristics that are pre-determined, such as growth rate, plant size, and days to harvest. This comes in quite handy for those of us that like to put our harvest up during a main canning or processing session.
Indeterminate varieties have fewer attributes that are predictable and are much closer genetically to their wild tomato ancestors. One thing you can count on is that they will grow, and grow, and grow, with fruitfulness occurring throughout the season. Cherry tomatoes are generally indeterminate, and those of you that have grown them know how large the vine can get! As long as needed moisture, sunlight and space are provided, they are going to make you look good as a gardener (as long as you don’t mind doing some manual control on any hitchhiking hornworms).
Even for beginners, a couple of seasons of tomato growing will quickly lead to some good results — so much so that a common problem, like with zucchini, is over-production. About this time of year, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with so many tomatoes that it’s hard to use them up or to preserve them for further use. Hence, many go to waste, or only so many can be given away before they are overly soft. You know you’ve been exceedingly generous when coworkers and neighbors see you coming, tomatoes in hand, and they either act like they are in the middle of an important phone conversation or make it look like they are not at home!
Compounding all this is the fact that many tomatoes we harvest are not absolutely photogenic. They may have small defects, such as a small spot of blossom end rot, a split, callouses, or be irregularly shaped. What to do?
There are many great uses of tomatoes, other than slicing them, adding a bit of salt and eating them fresh (or my favorite, making a fresh bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwich!). Today, I’ll feature a great marinara sauce that our daughter Beth taught us how to prepare. Although this is not a cooking column, I couldn’t pass up the chance to pass on to you this simple, rustic and incredibly tasty dish. Beth’s a professional chef, and relishes making dishes as fresh as she can.
Rather than giving me a recipe, she walked me through the basics of sauce making, and we had a great meal the first try! This sauce was used to make a batch of eggplant parmesan — although it can be used in several other Italian dishes. I’m confident you’ll have the same great experience adopting what I’m about to tell you.
For a medium batch of sauce, you will need about a dozen tomatoes (paste varieties like Roma are best, but not necessary), three to five cloves of garlic, half a medium yellow or white onion (diced), olive oil, basil (fresh or dry, but be aware dried is more potent, so go slow), a bit of oregano or marjoram (oregano’s milder and slightly sweeter cousin), a bit of sugar, a couple of tablespoons of vegetable or meat bouillon, and some salt and pepper.
What makes this so delicious is that you roast the tomatoes first for about one hour at 375 degrees. This brings out the flavors, and modifies the sugars in the fruit. Take a roast pan, or glass baking pan, and drizzle olive oil across the bottom of the pan. Next, prepare the tomatoes for roasting by slicing off the stem end. On the opposite end, cut an “X” with the cuts going about a third down the side. Also remove any blemished areas. Stand the tomatoes in the pan, stem end down. Don’t attempt to remove the skins. As you put them in the pan, slide them around a bit in the oil to get them coated on the bottom.
Place them in the oven, uncovered, and roast them for an hour. The tomatoes will cook, sugars will brown and juices will flow slightly onto the bottom of the pan. The skins will shrivel back and begin to separate as well. Remove the pan from the oven and let the tomatoes cool until lukewarm. Wash your hands, and dive in! Begin by pinching the stem end to mush out the cooked contents. Each one is slightly different, but the goal is to get the tomato flesh out of the skins. You will be pleasantly surprised, as I was, by how easy it is to get the skins off. Once you have discarded the skins, now mush up the pulp right into the pan, along with the drippings and olive oil. Set aside.
In a medium cook pot, drizzle some olive oil and put it over a medium flame. Add the diced onion, and add crushed garlic. Cook until the onions start to brown and are translucent. Turn down the heat, and add the tomato, along with the pan scrapings. Stir until all is combined. Then add some fresh chopped or dried basil, oregano or marjoram and stir in. If the sauce is very wet, add bouillon powder directly to the sauce. If drier, mix the powder in water separately until dissolved, and then add to the sauce. Let the sauce simmer for about 10 minutes and then taste. Adjust sweetness if needed by adding sugar sparingly.
Turn down the heat to low, and let it slowly cook until thickened to the consistency you prefer. Season to taste with salt and pepper as you finish cooking.
You can serve marinara fresh on pasta or stringed summer squash, or add to another dish, such as lasagna, ravioli, or my favorite, eggplant parmesan. You can also let it cool and store it in a covered container in the refrigerator and use within a week. I think you will be pleasantly surprised by how “bright” the flavor is. If you want a smoother consistency, you can use an immersion blender to partially or completely blend the sauce. I prefer it chunky, straight from my “hand mushing”, as it somehow seems more “genuine” to me!
This is only one of several great uses of tomatoes. And what about fresh salsas, such as “pico de gallo” (aka salsa fresca), canned salsa, margherita pizza, tomato soup (thanks, Mae Freestone — we use your recipe ongoing!), Caprese salad or stewed tomatoes. Maggie is a master at making stewed tomatoes, creating an annual supply that finds ongoing use in the cooler months for soups and stews. Keep in mind when canning tomatoes or salsa that they are acidic, meaning they need extended canning times and higher temperatures. If this is not done, there is a high risk of pathogens forming in the food. Don’t risk it! Do this right. Having said that, there’s a better resource than me on that topic: the USU Extension Office on Main Street in Tooele. They have both printed resources as well as sheets you can download, and there are staff members to advise you as well.
So, make it a goal to make good use of all the tomatoes that come your way — the list of uses is pretty extensive! Once you make some of these fresh and simple recipes, it’ll become an annual habit. How many habits do you know that are so addictive, healthy, and tasty?
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.